MOUTH OF BABES
By Gina Gallo
It's a limited curriculum. For kindergarten classes in Chicago's Public School
system, only the basics are taught - the ABC's, Coloring 101, Number recognition and, to help the kiddies develop some social skills, Intro Playground. For some kids, it's enough. For others, like
Miguel Ramos, it's nothing.
He's a difficult case, the teachers agree. They've seen his kind before - the dysfunctional child of a child. His mother's just seventeen and seems...well, irresponsible. And
the father? They've never seen Miguel's father- not even sure he's around, so that can't bode well. Since Spanish is the language spoken at home, Miguel doesn't understand much English. Hard to tell
what he understands since he doesn't speak, merely stares at his teachers with those big dark eyes that seem centuries older than his face. During class, he tracks the colored letters of the flashcards, the
bright pictures of puppy and kitten and car, and shows no emotion, no recognition at all.
"Learning disability," his teachers murmur, and then shake their heads. In the overcrowded, understaffed inner city schools, it's easy for a kid like Miguel to fall through the cracks. But the
teachers do what they can. Patiently line the crayons along the boy's desk, point out the colors, repeating numbers drawn on the board, and hope that something sinks in.
What they don't know is that Miguel is already a cum laude graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, a degree conferred to children in his circumstances. His daddy Javier's been in prison longer than
Miguel's been alive . A narcotics bust sent him up, one he took the dive for, but that can happen
when you're in a gang. Nobody rats on their brothers - it's part of the code of the street. So Raoul sits in a 6 X 8 at Stateville, marking time and wondering about the son he's never seen.
Miguel's mother? Already leeched of their childish roundness, Alicia's arms and face bear the tattoos
that mark her as an Insane Cobra. The same gang her parents were in, the same that will embrace her son. Miguel is a gang baby - a cycle that starts at birth, ends when the casket is lowered into the
ground. And in between, whatever fate allows.
For gang babies, even their christening is a pledge of allegiance. After the Church's standard religious ritual, gang members bring their baby home for a night of revelry. Like most other families, except that
here the bassinette is draped in gang colors - Cobras' green and black for Miguel. No christening gown, only a tiny set of gang colors that herald the baby as a future 'banger. And photographs of the blessed
event that show the proud parents, flashing gang signs in the background, pointing to the baby. His tiny hands are crossed over the black semi-automatic pistol they placed on his chest. A totem for the
bloodshed to come, or an indication that this baby is already dead....it'll just take a few years for the bullet to catch up with him.
But Alicia doesn't think about that much. It's hard on the street without her man, harder still with a kid. Hard to scrape up the money for food and drugs and the party life she still desires. Cobras are
expected to run with their set. She needs their friendship, and more than that, their protection. Gang women aren't safe alone out here, and without Javier, anything can happen. The other Cobras look out
for her, but like everything else, protection costs. Her body is still the currency that pays the fee,
but there are younger, finer bitches out there, threatening to replace her. Girls who don't live minute to minute worrying about the next fix. It's oblivion Alicia buys with a needle and a spoon, escape from
the thrusting men who use her and move on. At seventeen, she's strung out, used up, and beyond caring about anything but getting high.
So when the phone calls come from Miguel's school, Alicia ignores them. The gueras are crazy - there's nothing wrong with her kid. He knows plenty! At five years old, he already knows how to
chamber a round in the family guns - an important lesson in the survival game. He knows about gang loyalty, and protecting what's his. How to identify friends and enemies. And didn't she teach him how
to bag marijuana for street sales, adding enough stems to increase the gram weight? Her kid is smart - street smart. In the Cobras' world, that's all that matters.
When the phone calls give way to letters, she brushes them aside. Miguel doesn't have a learning disability! So what if he doesn't talk? Better that than to be jabbering and screeching like some little
brats. She knows he's normal, even if she doesn't spend much time with him herself. Hanging out and getting high takes up a lot of her time, but Miguel can handle it. Teach him to be independent, - a real
man, just like his Daddy.
So Miguel's teachers do what they can. Flashcards and numbers and color names are patiently repeated to the silent staring boy. While the other children play in the schoolyard, he stands alone.
No reaction moves his somber face, no emotion lights his ancient eyes.
But on one Friday morning, everything changes. Miguel's class is visited by 'Officer Friendly," a cop who comes to speak with the kids. Taking in the blue uniform and silver badge, Miguel's eyes widen
in recognition. He's seen cops before, all over his neighborhood, and hears his mother speak of them. And she spits afterward, like a curse.
But this cop is different. He's got a gun - another thing Miguel knows about, and he's smiling. He walks around the room, joking and laughing, showing pictures to the kids. Talking about some bad
dude named 'Stranger Danger.' Miguel turns the unfamiliar words over in his mind .He mouths them silently, savoring the feel. "Stranger Danger." English words that mean trouble.
The class listens intently to Officer Friendly. The big cop shows other pictures - large drawings of the trouble Stranger Danger can bring. You never know where he'll turn up, the cop says. Could be on the
street, or in a car. Miguel thinks of the drive-bys in his neighborhood and nods. He knows all about Stranger Danger. And figures that maybe this is one cop who's okay. He knows about taking care of
business, protecting against enemies. Like the Cobras, Officer Friendly carries a gun, and he wears
blue like the other cops, which must be the color of his gang. The little boy nods again. It's part of the street code, just like the Cobras. And for the first time, Miguel's teacher sees him smile.
Several nights later, police respond to a 'shots fired in the house' call at Miguel's address. A man's bleeding body is sprawled across the threshold, and even in the dim light, his prison tattoos are clearly
discernible. It's Javier, recently paroled and returning home to his wife and child. The wife who now
nods incoherently over a crack pipe while the child holds a smoking 9mm Glock. Catching sight of
the approaching police, Miguel points at his father, and proudly, carefully speaks those exotic English words
Copyright © 2000 by Gina Gallo - www.gallostories.com
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